Free-market policies rarely make poor countries rich (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 7)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismThese telling extracts from Ha-Joon Chang‘s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism come from ‘Thing 7’ (p.63-5):

“Contrary to what is commonly believed, the performance of developing countries in the period of state-led development was superior to what they have achieved during the subsequent period of market-oriented reform. There were some spectacular failures of state intervention, but most of these countries grew much faster, with more equitable income distribution and far fewer financial crises, during the ‘bad old days’ than they have done in the period of market-oriented reforms. Moreover, it is also not true that almost all rich countries have become rich through free-market policies. The truth is more or less the opposite. With only a few exceptions, all of today’s rich countries, including Britain and the US – the supposed homes of free trade and free markets – have become rich through the combinations of protectionism, subsidies and other policies that today they advise the developing countries not to adopt. Free-market policies have made few countries rich so far and they will make few rich in the future.”

To illustrate the above, a brief country case study:

“[This] country’s trade policy has literally been the most protectionist in the world for the last few decades, with an average industrial tariff rate at 40-55 per cent. The majority of the population cannot vote, and vote-buying and electoral fraud are widespread. Corruption is rampant, with political parties selling government jobs to their financial backers. The country has never recruited a single civil servant through an open, competitive process. Its public finances are precarious, with records of government loan defaults that worry foreign investors. Especially in the banking sector, foreigners are prohibited from becoming directors while foreign shareholders cannot even exercise their voting rights unless they are resident in the country. It does not have a competition law, permitting cartels and other forms of monopoly to grow unchecked. Its protection of intellectual property rights is patchy, particularly marred by its refusal to protect foreigners’ copyrights…

…[the country described above]…is the USA, around 1880…one of the fastest-growing – and rapidly becoming one of the richest – countries in the world…[following] policy recipes that go almost totally against today’s neo-liberal free-market orthodoxy.”

Michael Hudson on housing, student debt and economic stagnation

An interview with Professor Michael Hudson on the Real News Network, where he focuses on US house prices, the ongoing problem of private sector debt (particularly student debt) and the lacklustre performance of the economy.

Stock buybacks and building a more equitable economy

This video tells the story of how a relatively equitable capitalist growth model in the 1950s and 60s gave way to rising inequality and weaker investment. For Professor William Lazonick, the economy of the US (and other advanced nations) currently generates “profits without prosperity”.

After World War II, average wages across the economy tended to increase in line with productivity, so that ordinary workers shared in rising economic efficiency over time. However, since the 1970s, the link has been broken as productivity continued to rise, while wages stagnated. This trend has been largely sustained to the present day.

The video discusses these changes in the US economy, and focuses on the phenomenon of stock buybacks, which shift firm resources away from productivity-raising investment in new technology and a more highly-skilled workforce towards short-term financial gains for CEOs and investors. Lazonick discusses possible solutions to these problems.

Supporting an ageing population: the need for a new economic strategy

workersThe UK, in common with all rich nations and some poorer ones too, faces an ageing population. The health and social care needed to support this needs to be well-funded, which requires sufficient wealth creation across the country.

At the moment, the UK’s productivity lags significantly behind other rich countries and needs to be seriously addressed by whichever government takes office after the upcoming election. The growth of productivity, or how much output is produced from given inputs (land, labour, capital, entrepreneurship etc), is the key to a rising standard of living. It makes possible choices between, for example, more work for a higher income, or more leisure for the same income.

The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott here discusses these issues and makes a strong case for an ambitious industrial and regional policy to boost productivity growth. As he says, the average productivity in the UK’s Greater South-East, including London, is higher than that in Germany. If the average productivity of the UK as a whole is well behind that in Germany, as well as France and the US, this means that there is a strong regional dimension to the problem. The rest of the UK lags well behind the Greater South-East, and this is a major reason for the country’s high level of regional income inequality. Continue reading

How austerity may reduce innovation

An interesting post from Simon Wren-Lewis on how sustained austerity can lower innovation and productivity growth. With the latter growing painfully slowly in the UK and other rich countries for a number of years, this is potentially important. As he notes, it may only explain part of the productivity slowdown, but it still highlights one of the negative impacts of austerity.

Put briefly, austerity weakens aggregate demand when it cannot be offset by monetary policy (as has been the case since the recession). This may create an ‘innovations gap’. Firms facing reduced demand for their products will slow down the rate at which they create or utilize new products, processes and technology via new investment, leading to weaker growth in productivity. This sort of investment would have ’embodied’ the new technology, but in its absence, the improvements will not take place.